A Safe Space to Be
June 24, 2022
June 24, 2022
The first semester of college can be challenging for students in the best of times. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was often downright difficult. The pandemic limited opportunities for first-year students to not only explore their new campus home, but also meet people and make friends. For many transgender and nonbinary students, the experience was especially isolating.
Holden Lum ’24 remembers those early college days all too well. Lum, who identifies as nonbinary, knew only one person before arriving on the Southwestern University campus. Complicating matters, Lum, who was not yet out publicly, was assigned to Martin Ruter Hall, an all-male residence hall.
“My mental health wasn’t that good,” admits Lum, who uses they/them pronouns. “It was a rough semester.”
Lum began meeting with Purna Bajekal, a licensed professional counselor associate with the University’s Health and Counseling Center. They also joined an interpersonal process group designed to help students share their struggles and deepen their self-awareness. It was in this group that Lum first began talking about working through gender identity issues.
“I realized that this was something big in my life and that Southwestern didn’t have a support group yet for students like me,” Lum says. “I was talking to Purna about that, and she asked, ‘Would you want to start one?’”
By that point Lum had made some friends who were going through a similar journey. They reached out to them to gauge their interest in joining the potential new group. They also sent a group text to members of Pirates for Pride, the LGBTQ+ student organization.
“Our initial goal was to have five members,” Lum says. “We had 13 people show up at our first meeting.”
Building community and camaraderie
The Trans and Gender Non-Conforming Support Group met for the first time in March 2022. For the last six weeks of the semester, the members met once a week in an unstructured format where they could discuss whatever was on their minds.
“The main goal of the group is to provide a space where students can share their concerns and stories, build community with one another, and give and receive support,” Bajekal says.
Bajekal, who facilitates a similar group for students of color, helped the group create agreements and guidelines during the first meeting. She notes that while she is there to help facilitate dialogue, the students themselves are the ones who guide the group.
“A support group is different from group therapy or a process group because it’s really a place for people to share common experiences and common struggles. The participants do most of the work in the group,” she explains. “They are supporting one another. They are providing the resources. I’m there to hold the space and ensure safety.”
The group is an open, drop-in group, meaning students can come as often or as little as they like and stay for just a few minutes or for the entire meeting. There are no requirements or stipulations, aside from following the group guidelines.
On average, eight or nine students attended each meeting during the spring semester. Bajekal hopes more interested students will join the group when it starts meeting again in the fall.
“Many of these students are regularly experiencing transphobia or homophobia in their day-to-day lives. It’s imperative that they feel like they have a designated space where they feel welcomed, accepted, validated, and supported,” she says. “This is a space where they can share resources and ask questions that they don’t feel like they can ask their cisgender friends.”
Sharing resources and information
Paisley Humpert ’22 served as a co-facilitator of the group in the spring. A senior at the time, Humpert, who identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, was excited to finally meet some familiar faces.
“Because of COVID, the members of my class basically only knew each other,” they say. “It was awesome to meet some underclassmen I had seen on campus but hadn’t had a chance to connect with yet.”
Humpert notes that the group provided far more than the opportunity to socialize and make friends, however. For some participants, it was the only place where they felt safe to be themselves.
“We had some people who came who weren’t out at all, and it was really moving to listen to their stories and hear what they had to say,” they say. “I’m glad that we were able to provide that outlet.”
For Lauren Collins ’22, who identifies as nonbinary and uses he/they pronouns, one of the biggest benefits of the group is the ability to share resources and information, from clothing and makeup tips to knowledge about medical care.
“I know a trans-friendly barber shop, for example, so I shared that resource with everyone so they could go there if they wanted to get a haircut,” Collins says. “I also started hormone replacement therapy, so I was able to share the name of a really great doctor in Austin and explain how insurance works.”
Collins believes the mere existence of the group demonstrates Southwestern’s support of trans and gender non-conforming students.
“Some schools wouldn’t even be able to have this group,” he says. “Knowing that it’s allowed means there are people here who have your back and accept your identity.”
Making a lasting impact
Lum emphasizes that the group is open to all students interested in exploring their gender identity, no matter where they are in the process.
“Everyone’s welcome, even if you’re not sure how you want to identify. If it’s something you’re curious about, you can come and listen to other people share their experiences,” they say.
Humpert notes that the fact that the group is run by the Counseling Center is key to its long-term success. Unlike student-run organizations, the group doesn’t rely on student volunteers, who are often balancing classes, jobs, sports, and other obligations.
“COVID really impacted student organizations because it was hard to get people involved,” Humpert says. “There are spaces for queer people on campus, like Pirates for Pride, but a space run by a staff or faculty member is more stable.”
Lum also has high hopes for the group’s future.
“Hopefully I’m leaving a legacy and this group continues after I’m gone so that anyone who comes to Southwestern has a place where they can find people who are like them,” they say. “That’s part of the college experience.”
If you are interested in joining the Trans and Gender Non-Conforming Support Group, please email Purna Bajekal at firstname.lastname@example.org. In the interest of safety, all interested participants must complete a brief screening.